Thursday, March 01, 2007

Being Grateful

I spent several hours reading some Brecht stories and trying to figure out how I could use these stories to teach concepts important to lit study. The first thing I want to teach students about literary study is that you actually have to read whatever it is you want to study. It's even better if you read it carefully. But then there are other concepts, and I'd like to get to those.

Then I spent several more hours trying to actually teach the Brecht stories, lit concepts, and so forth, and wanting to express my dissapointment at those who don't read carefully.

Which leads me to my gratitude. I sometimes start out a class asking students what they thought of the reading. And when I do, I DETEST hearing that a student didn't like the reading. The worst is if they don't like it because it's "hard." But I found myself feeling about the Brecht stories that I just don't much like them. It's not that they're hard.

So while I was prepping, I kept imagining how the students would feel these stories are pointless, and how do they fit into the conceptual learning that's the overall point of the class. And then I confronted the problem of how to get us all beyond being blah about these stories, and to a point where we found them useful, and because useful, perhaps, interesting and worth spending our time with. The more I thought about how to teach them, the more interesting the stories got for me.

I went all materialist with them, because, it's Brecht, for gosh sake, and he's all over materialism, and the ways objects mean and such. I made up a handout with some questions about objects and meanings, about representations of material practices, money, and finally asked them to connect the story with two concepts they've discussed so far in the course. They worked in groups on the questions with one story for each group, and then explained what they'd found to the rest of the class using an overhead they'd had time to prepare. It wasn't the most scintillating and exciting class ever, but at least the students felt some pressure to talk about their story, and the ones who'd read well stood out. It showed. But even the ones who hadn't read well had time to dig themselves out a little with regard to their one story. Everyone contributed at least a little.

Then I had them do a little writing, to get them thinking a little reflectively.

And that leads me to my gratitude. Were I a high school teacher, I'd have to teach texts mandated by the system or school for different levels pretty much. No, I'm sure no one teaches Brecht at all (more's the pity!), but I would be a seriously unhappy Bardiac if I had to teach Hemingway, say, or Dickens.

Yesterday, I turned from teaching this class to teaching another where we're reading Gawain, and felt my spirits lift. The students, as they almost inevitably do, were excited by the story, confused, interested, challenged, and so was I.

So, I'm grateful to be able to pretty much teach texts that fascinate and challenge me, in ways I find exciting and useful.

And I'm grateful to have ten down, and five to go!


  1. I suppose it matters which department you are talking about in terms of teaching Brecht. As an undergrad, I was a German major. We read a lot of Brecht. He's also read in Theater departments.

    But, now that I think about it, I've never run across him in any English courses. The only germans I ever ran across in an English course were in a short story anthology we used in a short story class. Hmmmm...perhaps there is something to be said for encouraging more literature in translation courses.

  2. Good point, K8. I've taught Brecht in drama classes fairly often. But I've never read his short stories much.

    Lit in translation is problematic; I rarely teach poetry in translation, for example, but fairly often teach drama in translation (Maybe because of the Greek roots of Western European drama).

    So much to read! So little time!

  3. I enjoyed your thoughts on the reasons that lead us to literature, but I need to point out one little thing. HS English teachers rarely have mandated literature, in the guise of a booklist of required texts. The "mandates" happen more insidiously: dependence on the textbook, tradition in the department, lack of funds for new texts, community strictures, lists of suggested, i.e., acceptable, texts.

    One way to fight this is to expose future English teachers to a wide range of literature during their undergraduate/graduate preparation. They should be required to take classes in non-American/non-British literature, non-traditional literature, literature and technology, as well as classes that incorporate different literary theories and perspectives. With an understanding of the world of literature that exists for them, and positive learning experiences with that world, English teachers are much more inclined to bring the new and different into their classrooms.

    That's my soapbox. I'm stepping down now!

  4. Thanks for putting this into such good words. Like you, I feel fortunate to be able to teach pretty much what I like, a feeling that intensifies when the students both like and "get" the literature.

  5. I hope that when you teach reading closely you also teach that what you are reading closely are the words of a translator.

  6. Er, I'm trying to comment on your more recent post, but for some reason it's showing up on Bloglines but not on your actual page. So thanks for telling us about Kelsey - I hadn't known about her work before - and reminding us of Women's History Month. I don't think I remembered that even existed.

  7. PhDMe, Thanks for the correction; you're absolutely right that specific texts aren't necessarily mandated, but that choices may be seriously limited by what's available in storage and such, and what the local practices are.

    Xensen, Exactly! I have a really hard time with lit in translation because I love the play of words, and that's so incredibly difficult with translations.

    Thanks for your comments and encouragement, Undine and Kermit :)